What Is the Relationship among NAEP Scores, Educational Policy, and Classroom Practice?

Annually, the media, public, and political leaders over-react and misrepresent the release of SAT and ACT scores from across the US. Most notably, despite years of warnings from the College Board against the practice, many persist in ranking states by average state scores, ignoring that vastly different populations are being incorrectly compared.

These media, public, and political reactions to SAT and ACT scores are premature and superficial, but the one recurring conclusion that would be fair to emphasize is that, as with all standardized test data, the most persistent correlation to these scores includes the socio-economic status of the students’ families as well as the educational attainment of their parents.

Over many decades of test scores, in fact, educational policy and classroom practices have changed many times, and the consistency of those policies and practices have been significantly lacking and almost entirely unexamined.

For example, when test scores fell in California in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the media, public, and political leaders all blamed the state’s shift to whole language as the official reading policy.

This was a compelling narrative that, as I noted above, proved to be premature and superficial—relying on the most basic assumptions of correlation. A more careful analysis exposed two powerful facts: California test scores were far more likely to have dropped because of drastic cuts to educational funding and a significant influx of English language learners and (here is a very important point) even as whole language was the official reading policy of the state, few teachers were implementing whole language in their classrooms.

This last point cannot be emphasized enough: throughout the history of public education, because teaching is mostly a disempowered profession (primarily staffed by women), one recurring phenomenon is that teachers often shut their doors and teach—claiming their professional autonomy by resisting official policy.

November 2019 has brought us a similar and expected round of making outlandish and unsupported claims about NAEP data. With the trend downward in reading scores since 2017, this round is characterized by the sky-is-falling political histrionics and hollow fist pounding that NAEP scores have proven policies a success or a failure (depending on the agenda).

If we slip back in time just a couple decades, when the George W. Bush administration heralded the “Texas miracle” as a template for No Child Left Behind, we witnessed a transition from state-based educational accountability to federal accountability. But this moment in political history also raised the stakes on scientifically based educational policy and practice.

Specifically, the National Reading Panel was charged with identifying the highest quality research in effective reading programs and practices. (As a note, while the NRP touted its findings as scientific, many, including a member of the panel itself [1], have discredited the quality of the findings as well as accurately cautioning against political misuse of the findings to drive policy).

Here is where our trip back in history may sound familiar during this current season of NAEP hand wringing. While Secretary of Education (2005-2009), Margaret Spellings announced that a jump of 7 points in NAEP reading scores from 1999-2005 was proof No Child Left Behind was working. The problem, however, was in the details:

[W]hen then-Secretary Spellings announced that test scores were proving NCLB a success, Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen exposed one of two possible problems with the data. Spellings either did not understand basic statistics or was misleading for political gain. Krashen detailed the deception or ineptitude by showing that the gain Spellings noted did occur from 1999 to 2005, a change of seven points. But he also revealed that the scores rose as follows: 1999 = 212; 2000 = 213; 2002 = 219; 2003 = 218 ; 2005 = 219. The jump Spellings used to promote NCLB and Reading First occurred from 2000 to 2002, before the implementation of Reading First. Krashen notes even more problems with claiming success for NCLB and Reading First, including:

“Bracey (2006) also notes that it is very unlikely that many Reading First children were included in the NAEP assessments in 2004 (and even 2005). NAEP is given to nine year olds, but RF is directed at grade three and lower. Many RF programs did not begin until late in 2003; in fact, Bracey notes that the application package for RF was not available until April, 2002.”

Jump to 2019 NAEP data release to hear Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shout that the sky is falling and public education needs more school choice—without a shred of scientific evidence making causal relationships of any kind among test data, educational policy, and classroom practice.

But an even better example has been unmasked by Gary Rubinstein who discredits Louisiana’s Chief of Change John White (praised by former SOE Arne Duncan) proclaiming his educational policy changes caused the state’s NAEP gain in math:

So while, yes, Louisiana’s 8th grade math NAEP in 2017 was 267 and their 8th grade math NAEP in 2019 was 272 which was a 5 point gain in that two year period and while that was the highest gain over that two year period for any state, if you go back instead to their scores from 2007, way before their reform effort happened, you will find that in the 12 year period from 2007 to 2019, Louisiana did not lead the nation in 8th grade NAEP gains.  In fact, Louisiana went DOWN from a scale score of 272.39 in 2007 to a scale score of 271.64 in 2019 on that test.  Compared to the rest of the country in that 12 year period.  This means that in that 12 year period, they are 33rd in ‘growth’ (is it even fair to call negative growth ‘growth’?).  The issue was that from 2007 to 2015, Louisiana ranked second to last on ‘growth’ in 8th grade math.  Failing to mention that relevant detail when bragging about your growth from 2017 to 2019 is very sneaky.

The media and public join right in with this political playbook that has persisted since the early 1980s: Claim that public education is failing, blame an ever-changing cause for that failure (low standards, public schools as monopolies, teacher quality, etc.), promote reform and change that includes “scientific evidence” and “research,” and then make unscientific claims of success (or yet more failure) based on simplistic correlation and while offering no credible or complex research to support those claims.

Here is the problem, then: What is the relationship among NAEP scores, educational policy, and classroom practice?

There are only a couple fair responses.

First, 2019 NAEP data replicate a historical fact of standardized testing in the US—the strongest and most persistent correlations to that data are with the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and the states. When students or average state data do not conform to that norm, these are outliers that may or may not provide evidence for replication or scaling up. However, you must consider the next point as well.

Second, as Rubinstein shows, the best way to draw causal relationship among NAEP data, educational policy, and classroom practices is to use longitudinal data; I would recommend at least 20 years (reaching back to NCLB), but thirty years would add in a larger section of the accountability era that began in the 1980s but was in wide application across almost all states by the 1990s.

The longitudinal data would next have to be aligned with the current educational policy in math and reading for each state correlated with each round of NAEP testing.

As Bracey and Krashen cautioned, that correlation would have to accurately align when the policy is implemented with enough time to claim that the change impacted the sample of students taking NAEP.

But that isn’t all, even as complex and overwhelming as this process demands.

We must address the lesson from the so-called whole language collapse in California by documenting whether or not classroom practice implemented state policy with some measurable level of fidelity.

This process is a herculean task, and no one has had the time to examine 2019 NAEP data in any credible way to make valid causal claims about the scores and the impact of educational policy and classroom practice.

What seems fair, however, to acknowledge is that there is no decade over the past 100 years when the media, public, and political leaders deemed test scores successful, regardless of the myriad of changes to policies and practices.

Over the history of public education, also, before and after the accountability era began, student achievement in the US has been mostly a reflection of socio-economic factors, and less about student effort, teacher quality, or any educational policies or practices.

If NAEP data mean anything, and I am prone to say they are much ado about nothing, we simply do not know what that is because we have chosen political rhetoric over the scientific process and research that could give us the answers.


[1] See:

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

Did Reading First Work?, Stephen Krashen

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

 

On Normal, ADHD, and Dyslexia: Neither Pathologizing, Nor Rendering Invisible

In 1973, Elliott Kozuch explains, “the American Psychiatric Association (APA) — the largest psychiatric organization in the world — made history by issuing a resolution stating that homosexuality was not a mental illness or sickness. This declaration helped shift public opinion, marking a major milestone for LGBTQ equality.”

Homosexuality in many eras and across many cultures has been rendered either invisible (thus, the “closet” metaphor) or pathologized as an illness (thus, the horror that is conversion therapy).

This troubling history of responses to homosexuality confronts the inexcusable negative consequences of shame and misdiagnosis/mistreatment against the more humane and dignified recognition that “normal” in human behaviors is a much broader spectrum than either invisibility or pathologizing allows.

How we determine “normal” in formal education is profoundly important, and the current rise of dyslexia advocacy as that impacts and drives reading legislation and practice for all students parallels the dangers identified above with rendering invisible or pathologizing children who struggle with reading.

woman sitting on bed while holding book

Photo by David Lezcano on Unsplash

Further, this more recent focus on dyslexia looks incredibly similar to the increased diagnosis of ADHD, which was initially left invisible and then pathologized (probably over-diagnosed and heavily medicated).

Let’s focus first, then, on ADHD, and how the dynamic of “normal,” “invisible,” and “pathologized” impacts children.

In 2013 Maggie Koerth-Baker reported:

The number of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has ballooned over the past few decades. Before the early 1990s, fewer than 5 percent of school-age kids were thought to have A.D.H.D. Earlier this year, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 had at some point received the diagnosis — and that doesn’t even include first-time diagnoses in adults.

But here is the problem:

That amounts to millions of extra people receiving regular doses of stimulant drugs to keep neurological symptoms in check. For a lot of us, the diagnosis and subsequent treatments — both behavioral and pharmaceutical — have proved helpful. But still: Where did we all come from? Were that many Americans always pathologically hyperactive and unable to focus, and only now are getting the treatment they need?

Probably not. Of the 6.4 million kids who have been given diagnoses of A.D.H.D., a large percentage are unlikely to have any kind of physiological difference that would make them more distractible than the average non-A.D.H.D. kid. It’s also doubtful that biological or environmental changes are making physiological differences more prevalent. Instead, the rapid increase in people with A.D.H.D. probably has more to do with sociological factors — changes in the way we school our children, in the way we interact with doctors and in what we expect from our kids.

For context, when I was exploring the ADHD phenomenon in 2013, I ran across a provocative piece from 2012 about ADHD in France, Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD, published in Psychology Today. Immediately, this spoke to my concern about both pathologizing human behavior that may be within a broader understanding of normal and my skepticism about immediately medicating, instead of addressing diet, environment, etc.

However, the situation in France is far more complicated as noted in a piece also published by Psychology Today in 2015 , French Kids DO Have ADHD, this time acknowledging:

In other words, it’s not that French kids, or Europeans, don’t have ADHD, says French child psychiatrist Michel Lecendreux, but that they’re clinically invisible [emphasis added]. “It’s just not very well understood, nor is it very well-diagnosed, nor well-treated.” Lecendreux, a researcher at the Robert Debre Hospital in Paris who also heads the scientific commission for the French ADHD support group HyperSupers, told me that his research suggests that fewer than one-third of French children who have ADHD are being diagnosed.

The circumstances around ADHD in France reveal the power of narratives and cultural responses to human behavior, any people’s perception of “normal.” A study by Sébastien Ponnou and François Gonon from 2017, in fact, details the pervasiveness of different narratives about ADHD in French media:

Two models of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) coexist: the biomedical and the psychosocial. We identified in nine French newspapers 159 articles giving facts and opinions about ADHD from 1995 to 2015. We classified them according to the model they mainly supported and on the basis of what argument. Two thirds (104/159) mainly supported the biomedical model. The others either defended the psychodynamic understanding of ADHD or voiced both models. Neurological dysfunctions and genetic risk factors were mentioned in support of the biomedical model in only 26 and eight articles, respectively. These biological arguments were less frequent in the most recent years. There were fewer articles mentioning medication other than asserting that medication must be combined with psychosocial interventions (14 versus 57 articles). Only 11/159 articles claimed that medication protects from school failure. These results were compared to those of our two previous studies. Thus, both French newspapers and the specialized press read by social workers mainly defended either the psychodynamic understanding of ADHD or a nuanced version of the biomedical model. In contrast, most French TV programmes described ADHD as an inherited neurological disease whose consequences on school failure can be counteracted by a very effective medication. (abstract)

Back in the US, in Room for Debate from 2016, several experts challenged overpathologizing children with ADHD labels, the racial disparity in that pathologizing, and the dangers of medicating for ADHD as an avenue to controlling children.

Thus, the interaction among the fields of medicine and psychology, media representations of clinical conditions, and the spectrum along “normal,” “invisible,” and “pathologized” has profound consequences for children/teens and formal education.

Currently, we are witnessing mainstream media build a compelling narrative about the “science of reading” and the needs of children with dyslexia; this is a narrative about children with dyslexia being rendered invisible and there existing a “science of reading” that is the medicine necessary to cure that pathology.

However, as the examinations of homosexuality and ADHD above demonstrate, when it comes to the humanity and dignity of children being served by the institution of public education, we cannot tolerate either rendering them and their behaviors invisible or over-pathologizing, and thus misdiagnosing/mistreating, them.

This leads to the current rush to assess and identify dyslexia as a foundational part of teaching all children to read, policies about which the International Literacy Association (2016) offer several concern:

Errors in reading and spelling made by children classified as dyslexic are not reliably different from those of younger children who are not classified as dyslexic. Rather, evidence suggests that readers with similar levels of competence make similar kinds of errors. This does not suggest a greater incidence of dyslexia, but instead that some difficulties in learning to work with sounds are normal.

Yet, the rise in advocacy for identifying dyslexia has gained significant momentum in state policy even as ILA warns:

Some have advocated for an assessment process that determines who should and should not be classified as dyslexic, but this process has been shown to be highly variable across states and districts in the United States, of questionable validity, and too often resulting in empirically unsupported, one-size-fits-all program recommendations [emphasis added].

No child struggling to read should have that struggle rendered invisible, but pathologizing behavior that does not conform to a narrow definition of normal also carries significant and negative consequences. As ILA notes above, a more reasonable approach is simply to expand the spectrum of normal while building a supportive environment tempered with patience.

I teach a graduate student whose child is now in a school for dyslexic children. That child was floundering personally and academically in traditional school, and now flourishes, something everyone would applaud.

The parent, however, made a really powerful observation, noting that the child’s recent success comes in a school that champions Orton-Gillingham-based reading programs [1] (often OG for short).

Advocates for universal screening for dyslexia also advocate for systematic intensive phonics for all students, specifically OG. Yet, this child is now in a school with a 1-8 teacher-student ratio and a guaranteed 1.5 hours a day with 1-2 teacher-student ratio instruction.

The parent stated flatly that almost any child would flourish in those conditions and the different way the child is being taught to read is not necessarily the real cause of the new success. I must add, we absolutely have no research exploring these dynamics and controlling for variables that would help us understand the importance of reading programs versus learning/teaching conditions (see, for example, unfounded and overstated responses to 2019 NAEP reading scores).

Struggling to read is, in fact, quite normal, and a long, chaotic process. Teaching reading is very complex, unique to each child, and as ILA clarifies, “there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty.”

Demands that all children attain some prescribed proficiency in reading by third grade are artificial and themselves unnatural, abnormal.

No child should be invisible in schools, but pathologizing childhood behavior that is quite normal because some adults have irresponsible deadlines and expectations for those children is inexcusable.

Teaching children to read needs a new normal, one that acknowledges the power of learning and living conditions while avoiding the dangers of finding fault in any child that we can simply cure with some magical quick fix.


[1] From ILA:

[R]esearch does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003). Reviews of research focusing solely on decoding interventions have shown either small to moderate or variable effects that rarely persist over time, and little to no effects on more global reading skills. Rather, students classified as dyslexic have varying strengths and challenges, and teaching them is too complex a task for a scripted, one-size-fits-all program (Coyne et al., 2013; Phillips & Smith, 1997; Simmons, 2015). Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.

Resisting the Silver Bullet in Literacy Instruction (and Dyslexia): “there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty”

The Mind, Explained episode 1, Memory, introduces readers to some disorienting facts about human memory, transported in the soothing and authoritative voice-over by Emma Stone.

The episode shares a 9-11 memory from a young woman, recalling sitting as a child in her classroom and watching the smoke from the Twin Tower collapse billowing past the window as she worried about her mother working in the city.

Her memory is vivid and compelling, but it also factually wrong—both the detail of the billowing smoke (the window didn’t face that direction and the proximity of the school would not have allowed that event to occur) and her mother was not in the city that day.

Memory, the episode reveals, is often deeply flawed, as much a construction by the person as any sort of accurate recall.

Watching this, I thought about one of the most misinterpreted poems commonly taught in schools, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

This poem, and how people almost universally misread it, is parallel to the problems with memory in that people tend to impose onto text what we predict or want that text to say; and the verbatim elements of a text, the raw decoding of words, also depends heavily on schema, what the reader knows and the correlations that reader makes with words and phrases.

Frost’s poem, by the way, is about the significance of choosing, in that when we choose we determine our path. But the poem literally states multiple times that the paths are the same; therefore, the poem is not some inspirational poster about making the right choice—although this is the sort of simplistic message many people want to read.

Since I have been wrestling with the recent rise of dyslexia advocates calling for intensive systematic phonics instruction and dyslexia screening for all students as well as the over-reaction to the 2019 reading data from NAEP, I believe the memory and poem interpretation phenomena help explain how and why the “science of reading” narrative is so effective while simultaneously being deeply misguided (and misleading).

The media and most people find a single explanation for reading problems compelling; the argument that more students have dyslexia than are being identified and that one program type (intensive systematic phonics, usually Orton-Gillingham–based) will cure the low reading achievement crisis matches what people want to hear.

The disturbing irony is that those oversimplifying reading challenges and solutions as “the science of reading” are themselves not being very scientific even as they idealize “scientific research.”

I have argued against this in education for many years, and have identified this broadly as technocratic, an over-reliance on narrow types of measurement in order to control the teaching/learning process in ways that are not realistic in real-world classrooms.

The call for reading instruction driven by the “science of reading,” then, comes against several problems. First, literacy acquisition and instruction are both inherently messy and chaotic. Despite our seeking efficient and effective methods, mandating that all students develop the same ways and at the same rates is futile, and harmful. Concurrent with that reality, highly structured teaching of literacy is something that is manageable but likely ineffective, and again, harmful.

Narrow expectations for “scientific” tend to include controlling for external factors and reaching generalizable conclusions—both of which can be inappropriate for guiding teaching real students in an actual classroom.

Should reading policy and practice be informed by scientific studies? Of course, but any teacher must frame that against the needs of each student, needs that may dictate practices outside the parameters of narrow research. And every teacher has another type of evidence—their practice.

We must also, recognize, however, that the science of reading, and the science around dyslexia, are both not as clearcut as some advocates seem to suggest.

When we ask the questions being posed now—Is there a reading crisis (distinct from the historical trends of reading test scores)? Is there a dyslexia crisis? Should all students be screened for dyslexia? Should all students receive intensive systematic phonics instruction?—the answers do not match the current media and advocacy frenzy.

The 2016 International Literacy Associations Reading Advisory on Dyslexia offers a much different framing of “scientific,” in fact:

Both informal and professional discussions about dyslexia often reflect emotional, conceptual, and economic commitments, and they are often not well informed by research.

First, some children, both boys and girls, have more difficulty than others in learning to read and write regardless of their levels of intelligence or creativity. When beginning literacy instruction is engaging and responsive to children’s needs, however, the percentage of school children having continuing difficulty is small (Vellutino et al., 1996; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Lyon, 2000).

Second, the nature and causes of dyslexia, and even the utility of the concept, are still under investigation [emphasis added]….

Third, dyslexia, or severe reading difficulties, do not result from visual problems producing letter and word reversals (Vellutino, 1979)….

Errors in reading and spelling made by children classified as dyslexic are not reliably different from those of younger children who are not classified as dyslexic. Rather, evidence suggests that readers with similar levels of competence make similar kinds of errors. This does not suggest a greater incidence of dyslexia, but instead that some difficulties in learning to work with sounds are normal [emphasis added]….

[I]nterventions that are appropriately responsive to individual needs have been shown to reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population [emphasis added] (Vellutino et al., 2000).

As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty [emphasis added] (Mathes et al., 2005). For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic [emphasis added] (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003)….

Some have advocated for an assessment process that determines who should and should not be classified as dyslexic, but this process has been shown to be highly variable across states and districts in the United States, of questionable validity, and too often resulting in empirically unsupported, one-sizefits-all program recommendations [emphasis added].

The science of reading actually suggests we should not see a reading crisis in our test data, and not conflate low test scores in reading with special needs such dyslexia.

And we must reject calls to adopt singular evaluation processes and reading programs that claim to address the natural development and challenges of 98% of students.

All general population students and students with special needs need rich and robust literacy instruction that helps teachers recognize their needs in order to foster their natural development over many years (resisting as well the false notion that 3rd grade is a magical moment for all students to attain the same mastery of literacy).

While there are certainly good intentions behind calls for identifying and serving students with dyslexia, the over-reaction to reading test scores and oversimplification of “scientific” are pathologizing and stigmatizing students, and eroding effective teaching and authentic learning.

Like memory and poems by Frost, teaching reading and becoming a reader are complicated. Many find that so unpleasant, they have retreated into a mantra that isn’t itself very well grounded in evidence, the hallmark of “scientific.”

The evidence we use on reading, test scores, has for at least a century shown us that there really is no normal development of reading at predictable benchmarks and that measurable reading achievement has always been and continues to be a powerful marker for the socio-economic status of the students tested.

Technocrats do not want evidence that is historical and sociological, however, preferring instead to impose a problem and a solution onto the data in ways that are as comforting as a detailed, though significantly flawed, memory.

See Also

Scientific evidence on how to teach writing is slim

Proof Points (Writing Instruction)

Unsweet Tea: On Tokenism, Whiteness, and the Promise of Culturally Relevant Teaching

I stood as I have many times in front of the two tea dispensers at a chain sub sandwich shop. But this time, I was suddenly struck with the choice I always make—the “unsweet tea.”

Medium Freshly-Brewed Iced Tea Unsweetened

I was born, raised, and have lived my entire life in the Deep South. My mother made tea that would rival pancake syrup and trained my sister and me in the meticulous ritual of steeping tea bags and then pouring the hot tea over a huge mound of processed sugar.

The tea pot was dedicated only to steeping tea, and the tea jar and the giant plastic sugar spoon were sacred as well.

Once I left home, my mother flirted with sun tea, but the syrup-sweet tea of my childhood later became my defining feature of what could rightfully call itself The South. When ordering tea, The South hands you sweetened ice tea; hot tea or tea without sugar are not even mentioned, or considered.

So with a great deal of shame, I must admit that only a week or so ago I was truck with the absurdity that is “unsweet tea,” which of course is just tea.

The “unsweet” is a necessity only because “sweet tea” in South Carolina is the norm, the default, what has been rendered invisible and simultaneously right.

All across the U.S., then, “unsweet tea” in The South is a less controversial entry point into how whiteness works as the norm, the invisible, and the right.

Whiteness as the normal and as the invisible drives the greatest bulk of privilege in the U.S., but once that whiteness and privilege are exposed, confronted, white fragility is the response, as Robin DiAngelo (2011) details:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

White fragility as a response to naming and confronting privilege as well as racism is extremely powerful because that response is clinging to an entrenched norm with incredibly long and anchored roots.

Despite claims that formal public education works to change students and thus reform society, schools most often reflect and perpetuate privilege and all sorts of inequities and norms. Thus, education—teachers/teaching, curriculum, testing, discipline, dress codes, etc.—tends to work in the service of whiteness.

Just as whiteness must be exposed and confronted in society, education that is liberatory and life- as well as society-changing must be willing to commit, as Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, to culturally relevant teaching:

A hallmark for me of a culturally relevant teacher is someone who understands that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system [emphasis added] — they take that as a given. And that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?

Instead, Ladson-Billings laments:

I find that teachers often shy away from critical consciousness because they’re afraid that it’s too political [emphasis added]. A perfect example for me is some years ago when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, that district in Ferguson sent out a directive that teachers not talk about this. This is exactly what kids are talking about every single day, because at night when they go home and turn on the news, their streets are flooded with protesters, and they need an adult to help make sense of this. But the school has said, “No, you can’t talk about this.”

One result of teachers and schools self-regulating in the service of whiteness, privilege, and inequity is tokenism—viewing culturally relevant teaching through a deficit lens isolated on Black and Brown students or students living in poverty; and selecting curriculum, materials (texts, programs, etc.), and events that highlight diversity and multiculturalism,

but [as Ladson-Billings explains] what research has found is just changing the content is never going to be enough, if you are pedagogically doing the very same things: Read the chapter, answer the questions at the back of the book, come take the test. You really haven’t attended to the deep cultural concerns. What happens is school districts want you to do just that — teach exactly the way you’ve been teaching, just change the information [emphasis added]. That does little or nothing to increase engagement, and it certainly doesn’t help kids feel any more empowered about what they’re learning.

Whiteness, like sweet tea in The South, is ubiquitous in the U.S.—but whiteness desires to remain invisible as it drives privilege for some and further entrenches inequity for others. White fragility is the only consequence of rendering whiteness visible so that it can be eradicated.

This confrontation of whiteness is the duty of white people, and that must not be dulled by tokenism and self-regulation.

Recognizing that “unsweet tea” is just tea serves as a powerful example of the importance of naming as a first step to exposing in a journey to eradicating whiteness and privilege.

Genuine and robust culturally relevant teaching does offer a promise to move beyond whiteness and to quell white fragility, as Ladson-Billings argues:

When we do this work, there are certain baselines that people have to have. Number one, they have to believe that racism is real, and number two, they have to believe that they may be acting on it….

The most segregated group of kids in the country are white kids. We never refer to their schools as segregated. We refer to black and brown kids as going to segregated schools.

So, integration in which kids of different races and ethnicities have an opportunity to fully participate in the life of the school is what I would hope to see.

De-centering whiteness proves to be a bitter drink for white people who are too often compelled to respond with white fragility or tokenism.

Now, whiteness must seek ways to work against itself, making whiteness visible, centering it one last time in order to recenter our society and schools in ways that are equitable.


See Also

The female price of male pleasure

The Great Accountability Scam: High-Stakes Testing Edition

Among other teachers and education scholars, I have been making a case throughout my 36 years in education that has prompted mostly derision from edureformers, politicians, the media, and “no excuses” advocates; the position grounded in evidence includes:

  • Standardized and high-stakes tests are weak proxies for student achievement and teacher/school quality but powerful proxies for the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and communities.
  • And thus, important contributions made by teachers and schools to student learning are very difficult to measure or identify in any direct or singular way (either in a one-sitting test or linked to one teacher over one course, etc.).
  • Accountability structures do not and cannot reform in any substantive way teaching and learning; in fact, high-stakes standards and testing are likely to impact negatively complex and powerful teaching and learning in the name of democracy, human agency, and equity.
  • All in-school-only education reform, then, will appear to (and actually) “fail” as long as public policy does not first or concurrently address socioeconomic inequities such as healthcare, work quality and stability, food insecurity, safety and justice, etc.
  • Social and educational reforms are extremely complex and take far more time than political and public impatience allows; however, the proper political will should shift the U.S. social and educational reform toward an equity structure (not an accountability structure) in order to see observable positive change over time.
  • In-school equity reform must address teacher assignments, de-tracking course access, fully funding all in-school meals, fully publicly funding K-16 education, school discipline and dress codes grounded in restorative justice and race/class/gender equity, and student/teacher ratios.

Historically and currently, public education—as well as charter schools and private schools—serve well the students with the most race, class, and gender privileges and mis-serve inexcusably the most vulnerable students—black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students, and impoverished students.

Accountability does not and cannot address that gap; high-stakes testing measures that gap and often increases the inequity since the stakes are tied to gatekeeping in education and society.

Formal education in the U.S. has mostly reflected and perpetuated our national and regional inequities, and the claim that schooling is a “game changer” remains a deforming myth.

As a recent additional source of evidence for my claims, please see this study by Kenneth Shores, Pennsylvania State University and Matthew P. Steinberg, George Mason University:

The Great Recession was the most severe economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), we describe the patterns of math and English language arts (ELA) achievement for students attending schools in communities differentially affected by recession-induced employment shocks. Employing a difference-in-differences strategy that leverages both cross-county variation in the economic shock of the recession and within-county, cross-cohort variation in school-age years of exposure to the recession, we find that declines in student math and ELA achievement were greater for cohorts of students attending school during the Great Recession in communities most adversely affected by recession-induced employment shocks, relative to cohorts of students that entered school after the recession had officially ended. Moreover, declines in student achievement were larger in school districts serving more economically disadvantaged and minority students. We conclude by discussing potential policy responses. (Abstract)

Time to End the Charter School Distraction

The 21st century charter school movement in the U.S. has been at least a deeply flawed solution for a misunderstood problem. But charter advocacy has also suffered from a serious contradictory pair of arguments aimed simultaneously at traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools.

As stringent high-stakes accountability gradually ramped up for TPS from the early 1980s and through both the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and the even more intense (and volatile) Obama administration, charter school advocacy increased, and those schools expanded across the U.S. driven by the argument that charter schools flourish because of their independence from bureaucratic mandates.

TPS suffered a series of ever-new standards and high-stakes tests, persistent narratives that they were “failing,” and a recalcitrant public and political leadership that refused to acknowledge the nearly crippling impact of social inequity on any school’s ability to effectively teach children.

Yet, at the same time, charter schools were routinely hailed falsely as “miracles” and neither the public nor political leadership seemed to care that research repeatedly revealed that charter schools simply did not outperform TPS (just as private schools do not outperform TPS). In short, charter schools have continued to float on advocacy and magical thinking even when we can clearly show that school type has nearly no impact on student outcomes—since those outcomes are far more significantly driven by out-of-school factors (home and community economic status, parental education levels, home security, access to food, medical care access, etc.).

Just as the Bush/Paige Texas “miracle” that spurred NCLB was soundly debunked, the Harlem “miracle” often cited by Obama/Duncan proved directly and indirectly (the many copy-cat charter “miracles” across the U.S., such as KIPP charter schools) to be mirages.

Like KIPP advocacy, however, the all-charter-school reality that has occurred in New Orleans after Katrina has also flourished on political and media misrepresentations.

An editorial in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has now offered one step in the right direction on charter schools in SC—but it fails to offer the only logical end-game concerning charter funding in this high-poverty state.

Yes, as the editorial notes after citing a Tulane study on charters [1]:

Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

As I have detailed dozens of times directly about comparing charter schools and TPS in SC, most charter schools are about the same or worse than TPS that are serving similar populations of students. When charter schools appear to be outperforming, typically those gains are mirages that distract us from the real causal differences—under-serving special needs students, under-serving English language learners, expanded school days and/or years that account for the “growth” being measured, private funding, relief from accountability that comparable TPS must follow.

A simple dictum here is that if we allowed TPS those same caveats, we would see absolutely no surface differences in test scores; a more complicated dictum is that if charter schools had to function under the nearly paralyzing spectrum of obligations that TPS have always addressed, those charter schools would be seen as failures also.

The harsh truth no one wants to confront is that formal schooling, regardless of the type, has a very small measurable impact on student achievement when compared to the relatively larger influence of out-of-school factors. Related to that harsh truth is that once vulnerable students enter formal schooling, they far too often experience even greater inequities because all school models (TPS, charter schools, private schools) both reflect and perpetuate inequities in their policies (teacher assignment, tracking, disciplinary policies, class size and course access inequity, etc.).

As some of us in education have been arguing for decades, education reform must be grounded in equity and in-school reform can succeed only as a companion to significant social and economic reform that addresses food insecurity, work stability, health care, and safety (what I have called social context reform).

Again, the P&C editorial has offered an important charge that “South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement” for charter schools. But simply closing failing charter schools is not enough since we should not be creating charter schools to begin with.

In fact, we should close all charter schools because the charter churn (and all school choice) is a wasteful and politically cowardly indirect approach to reform.

SC is a historically high-poverty state that simultaneously clings to self-defeating conservative politics. Neither social/economic nor education policy in the state serves well the very large vulnerable populations of the state, not the adults or the children.

The political rhetoric and the ideology it spreads are themselves mirages at best, and cruel lies at worst.

New Orleans since 2005 has erased and replaced a TPS system with a charter system, and still the narrative remains about the exact same—schools need reform.

Formal schools regardless of the type reflect the children and communities they serve. Formal schools are rarely change agents.

If SC or any state genuinely wants education reform that serves all students, we will first invest in our entire state in ways that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us and then we will re-invest in a public school system that fulfills the promise that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn that we can imagine.

Leaving equity in our society and our schools to the Invisible Hand is nothing more than a slap to the faces of the people and children who need us the most.


[1] This Tulane study has been repeatedly misrepresented by charter advocates; please see the following for a fuller and more complex picture of what that study can suggest, and what it does not:

A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of [their] making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which . . . effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.